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Shortly after the finish of the 1991 Ironman World Championship, race winner Paula Newby-Fraser took a moment to introduce runner-up Erin Baker to her father, who had own over from South Africa to see his daughter race in Hawaii for the first time. Baker politely shook his hand, and then turned to Newby-Fraser and said, “I never pictured you as someone who had a family.” Baker wasn’t trying to come across as curt—although she most certainly did. That was just how she operated.
“She almost had to dehumanize her competition to race well. My dad still talks about it to this day,” Newby-Fraser says. Were it not for competing during the same time as Newby-Fraser, Baker would be remembered as the undisputed queen of Kona. She won the Ironman World Championship twice (in 1987 and 1990) and finished runner-up to Newby-Fraser on three occasions.
A powerful swim-biker, she liked to race from the front and make her competition suffer. And she didn’t leave that intensity on course. She was the sport’s original outspoken athlete; a woman unafraid to talk about everything from equal pay to apartheid. It was her outspokenness about apartheid that eventually got Baker banned from racing in the U.S. until 1986.
Baker and her parents were among the people arrested for heated protests against the visiting South African rugby team in New Zealand, which meant Baker couldn’t apply for a U.S. visa for five years. Not being able to race at the sport’s biggest event did little to quell Baker’s zeal: She continued to speak out against South Africa’s racial laws, and encouraged events in Europe and New Zealand to blacklist Newby-Fraser because of her South African citizenship.
“It was like she wanted me out of the sport because I was South African,” Newby-Fraser says. “ I ultimately gave up my South African passport to race under my Zimbabwe passport because of all the issues—a lot of which she had brought up.”
But there was another side to Baker that few got to see—one far different than the cutthroat competitor or anti-apartheid activist. Years ago, Newby-Fraser’s husband became extremely ill and bedridden, and Baker was the only one to drive out to his remote house to check on him—bringing him food and medicine and reporting back to Newby-Fraser that it was nothing more than a common cold and not to worry.
Beyond being one of the toughest competitors the sport has ever known, a political activist, and a caring friend, Baker was a woman well ahead of her time. While many sports struggle to this day for equal pay and treatment for men and women, triathlon has embraced the principles of equality for decades—and that’s largely thanks to Baker. When it was announced that the inaugural ITU World Championship in 1989 would have more prize money for men, she quite literally slammed her fist on the table and demanded that ITU President Les McDonald fix it—and he did. Anyone who’s ever met the late McDonald knows he wasn’t one to be intimidated, but Baker had no problem challenging him in a room full of the world’s best triathletes.
“People like to say triathlon is one of the few ‘lucky’ sports that’s always treated men and women equally, but it wasn’t always that way,” says 2006 Ironman World Champion Michellie Jones, another one of Baker’s rivals. “It’s because we had strong, opinionated women like Erin during the early years of our sport that it is the way it is today.”